The year 2016 has been a gratifying one for retired basketball legend Yao Ming. Despite a career cut short by injuries, the 36-year-old former Houston Rockets center—and eight-time All-Star—was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in September. It is also the year the Shanghai native’s California winery, Yao Family Wines, put itself squarely on the map of Napa Valley by opening a chic visitor’s center in the wine-tourist mecca of St. Helena.
Bankrolled in part by $2 million raised on CrowdFunder, Yao’s tasting room provides new public visibility for his small-production, luxury-priced Cabernet Sauvignon blends, which are already a hit with the wine press. International market-maker Robert Parker, of The Wine Advocate, wrote, “I am aware of all the arguments that major celebrities lending their names to wines is generally a formula for mediocrity, but… the two Cabernets are actually brilliant, and the Reserve bottling ranks alongside just about anything made in Napa.” Parker gave the 2012 Reserve an all-star ranking of 96 points.
Yao himself, reached on a fall afternoon in the midst of harvest, keeps it in perspective: “We are still very young, and we have so much still to learn,” he said of his operation, which produced its first wine from the 2009 vintage.
But Yao and his team are humble only to an extent: The current 2012 Yao Ming Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $225 a bottle from the winery (Sherry-Lehmann in New York City offers the 2010 Reserve at $645). The nonreserve 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $100. The prices of these flagship wines–there is also a less expensive Napa Crest line–pits them against a world-class competitive set. (In the U.S., for example, $225 would be more than enough to buy a bottle of 2012 Sassicaia from Tuscany, and with a little shopping two bottles of 2012 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou from Bordeaux.)
Given his ambitions, Yao was fortunate in hiring California veteran Tom Hinde as president and winemaker. Hinde had previously made wine at the top-notch Flowers, in Sonoma County, and for various high-end Jackson Family Wines projects. Yao knew exactly what kind of wine he wanted to make–the kind of rich-but-balanced luxury reds he’d come to enjoy in Houston steakhouses. “That’s how my drinking history started,” he explains. “Wait,” he adds, laughing, “does that sound bad? My ‘drinking history’ ” And Hinde had the on-the-ground knowledge to source the grapes for just such a wine: a little from here, a little from there.
Buying grapes from six vineyards with differing characteristics, from the San Francisco Bay-cooled south to volcanic hillsides to the warm northern part of the valley, Hinde takes a “ spice box” approach to constructing the flagship wines. In the end they are, he says, classic Napa Valley Cabernets. But Yao, who flies in from Shanghai for all the key decision making, very much directs the nuances of the style. While basketball fans may remember the 7’6″ center crashing the boards, away from the court he is apparently a man who appreciates delicacy.
“These wines are very much driven by what he values,” Hinde says. “They are all about harmony. You won’t find overuse of oak or purposely high alcohol or overextracted fruit. There is an elegance you might not find in other wines.”
It is a style the Yao family team hopes will continue to find favor in China and in Asia generally, where the company sells about 30% of its production. This is no small feat given that the premium wine market in China has slackened along with the economy. Tariffs, VAT and generally higher markups at wholesale and retail essentially double U.S. retail prices for wine inside China, meaning that Yao Family’s entry-level Napa Crest Red, $48 at the St. Helena tasting room, climbs to about $80 in China. The Yao Ming Napa Cabernet, at $250, and the Reserve, at $450, are very much high-end luxury products.
Still, Hinde believes that Yao Family is selling more fine wine in China than any other Napa producer, though like all American wineries it faces a market long dominated by French labels. “Obviously,” says Yao Ming, “Bordeaux is more famous than Napa Valley in China. But we are catching up.”
If so, Yao himself may be a big factor. A major celebrity in China–it was Yao, after all, who carried the 2008 Olympic torch into Tiananmen Square–he is, as Hinde puts it, “a huge door-opener. He gives us the ability to start those conversations and get people to taste the wines.”
So, of course, does the new Napa Valley tasting room, where about a third of the visitors so far have come from the burgeoning numbers of Chinese tourists. “We run into my countrymen a lot in our tasting room,” Yao says proudly. And more, many more, are likely to come. For Yao Ming the good news in 2016 was just a beginning.
~Richard Nally, Forbes Asia